Uh-0h, It's That Time Again!
Some People Would Like To Skip From October To Mid-January

Many grievers wish they could jump from late October to mid-January and skip the Holidays

The holidays are approaching. A joyous time. A festive time. A time when families and friends celebrate the passage of another year and the coming of a new year.

But not everyone will feel like celebrating.

For grieving people, if this is the first year since the death of someone important, or after a divorce, the holidays may be difficult. Since time does not heal emotional wounds, subsequent holiday times may be painful and awkward. Even surrounded by family and friends, grievers may feel isolated, alone, and as if no one understands.

Grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss. In general, it is marked by conflicting emotions that result from the change or end in a familiar pattern of behavior. But more specifically, from the standpoint of the grieving person, "Grief is the feeling of reaching out for someone who has always been there, only to find when we need them one more time, they are no longer there."


Adapting to the absence of someone important in your life is difficult enough. But the first holiday season, with its constant reminders of family, coupled with holiday joy and tradition, can be especially painful. At the Grief Recovery Institute we've talked with thousands of people who've told us they wished they could jump from late October right to mid-January. We've heard that same sentiment from people enduring their first holiday season following a divorce as well as a death.

It's normal to worry that you won't be able to handle the pain of that first holiday season, whether the missing person is a spouse, parent, grandparent, sibling or child. You may even think you'd rather skip holiday gatherings. Those feelings and fears are not illogical or irrational. They represent a normal, healthy range of emotions about painful loss and our society's limited ability to talk openly and honestly about grief.

Grief—A Taboo Subject


We all experience losses and we all grieve. Yet, grief is one of the most off-limits topics for discussion in our society. It seems strange that one of the experiences we are all going to have, is the one experience we are ill-prepared for and ill-equipped to talk about. Even more troubling is all the misinformation passed on about grief.

We have been taught to believe that "Time heals all wounds." So people will say, "It just takes time." The griever assumes the advice to be correct, and waits while time goes by. But time is neutral and does nothing but pass.

People also say, "You have to be strong for the children" [or other family members]. So we pass that on to the griever, who dutifully acts strong for the kids, while burying their own feelings deeper and deeper. Worse, while acting strong for the children, they demonstrate "not feeling," which teaches the child to hide his or her feelings also.

We have been socialized to believe that intellectual remarks will help with emotional conflict. So grievers are told, "Don't feel bad, he led such a full life." Maybe he did. But the griever is in emotional turmoil, and that comment, which may be intellectually accurate is not emotionally helpful.

None of the pat remarks identified above help grievers take the correct and necessary steps that lead to recovery from the unfinished emotional business that accrues in all relationships. Rather, the griever is led down a path that leads to more isolation and loneliness.

What Grievers Want

Several years ago we conducted a survey that asked: "What is the best way to act around someone who has just experienced the death of a loved one?" From the multiple choice answers, 98 percent of the respondents chose: "Act as if nothing had happened."

What a sad commentary...is it any wonder that grieving people tend to isolate? The fact is they are isolated by the fact that people won't talk to them about the only thing that's on hearts and minds.

We also surveyed people who had experienced the death of a loved within the past five years. We asked them: "In the weeks and months immediately following the death of your loved one, what did you most want and need to do?" Ninety-four percent chose: "Talk about what happened and my relationship with the person who died."

This holiday season, there will be plenty of hurting people who, given the opportunity, will want to talk about someone they miss. You will be a most cherished friend or family member if the grieving person feels safe enough to talk to you about what is so foremost on his heart and mind. If they don't want to talk about it, don't be offended. But please give them the opportunity.

A Safe Start

At the very least, we suggest that you to bring up the topic, and allow them to decide if they want to talk about it. If you're thinking that it is an awkward question and you don't know how to ask it, we agree with you. So, here's a simple phrase which allows the griever to respond or not as they see fit, but is not an interrogation or a command that they must talk about the loss. "I heard about the death in your family...I can't imagine what this has been like for you."

If you look at that phrase you'll notice that it is actually a statement, but the use of the word "imagine' invites an answer without ever asking a probing question. Interestingly, over the years, we have found the word "imagine" to be the single most open-ended emotional word in the English language. It implies that whatever the griever says will be accepted. It also implies that whatever the griever says will not be judged or criticized. Those are very important safeguards for the griever, who is hyper-aware of any comments or questions which imply that he is wrong or defective for having the emotions associated with loss.

Just use your own memory and experience to recall how important it was to feel safe when your heart had been affected by a painful loss. Many of you may remember having felt hurt by people who were really very close to you, when they said things that didn't feel right, or equally, when they avoided the topic, and left you feeling very confused.

Happy and Sad—Just Flip Sides of an Emotional Coin

If a friend gets a new sports car, we wouldn't dream of not asking all about it. We know they really want to tell us all about it. We must adopt a parallel notion when something sad or upsetting has happened. We know, in many cases, they really want to talk about it.

If people don't feel safe to talk, they may find other ways to soothe themselves. That could include alcohol, drugs and food - something in plentiful supply at holiday time, and which may have negative or disastrous consequences.

Take A Chance

Communication has its risks. Bringing up a loss - yours or someone else's - may not be welcomed. Good taste and timing are important. For instance, we're not suggesting that just as Grandpa starts to carve the turkey, you blurt out, "How have you been since Grandma died?"

However, from personal experience, we can tell you that it would not make any sense not to mention someone very important to us. Russell's personal story illustrates this idea: "My mother died sixteen years ago on the day before Thanksgiving, and that holiday hasn't been the same for me since. But I always take the opportunity to toast my Mom and say how much I miss her. Invariably, the others at the table start talking about people they miss. The stories and the memories they evoke are filled with laughter and tears."

The ability to communicate our emotions openly and clearly, happy or sad, is one of the distinguishing characteristics of being human. It's less human to exclude from discussion those people who have been important in our lives.

Being afraid of sad feelings can deprive us of the treasure trove of memories attached to relationships with people who have died. Overcoming this fear, especially at holiday time, allows us to claim the full memory of the people we miss. People are surprised to discover that even though there may be some sadness, there may be plenty of joy as well.

Bottom Line

"Recovery from loss is achieved by a series of small and correct choices made by the griever."

We don't want to sound like a commercial, but we'll make an exception this one time. The most effective and accurate source of those correct choices is our book, The Grief Recovery Handbook. The sub-title says it all - The Action Program for Moving Beyond Death, Divorce, and Other Losses, including Health, Career, and Faith.

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Replies to This Discussion

Oh this stirs up so many feelings, so many memories and making me aware of the dread that is already with me as the holidays approach.

For the years we raised our children in Kansas ... Christmas was filled with so many traditions and special memories. Every year we always took the children to the Plaza. A beautiful outdoor shopping experience that is the jewel of Kansas City. It's been photographed in National Geographic and Good Morning America has done shows from the Plaza at Christmas time. On Thanksgiving night they turn the Christmas lights on and it's a tradition of over 100,000 people to make the trek down to the Plaza each Thanksgiving to watch this. My husband, Jon, and I and the kids went every year. We would also always plan another family evening just walking around, looking at the site and the beautiful Christmas decorations. One year we were so busy, our schedules so hectic that we could come up with only one night for our family night on the Plaza. Everyone was excited and then a heavy snowfall, almost blizard conditions hit. Jon wanted to go anyway so we packed the kids up and braved the storm. It ended up a magical night. We were the only people walking around the Plaza. The store workers catered to us. We rode the horse drawn carriage ride (without having to stand in line) and it was perfect with the snow falling, Christmas music playing and the lights all lit up and it was just us. What a night packed with memories, beauty, Christmas spirit and love.

Jon loved to put up the Christmas lights but every year he would do these 2 bedroom windows so that the lights looked like diamonds ... not sure what diamonds had to do with Christmas but he loved it. Every year we would faithfully walk out to the street and look back at the house and the diamond lighted windows and watch Jon beaming with delight over his handiwork. And, every year we ewed and awed over those crazy diamond lit windows, just because he was so happy about them! LOL.

Another tradition we had was to always go a cut down a fresh Christmas tree. For Jon and the girls and I, it was always a special day. When Jon and I moved to Vegas the year before he disappeared we went out and bought our first artificial Christmas tree. This was the first year we would be away from children and grandchildren but we were having fun creating new memories. Getting that artificial Christmas tree was hysterical. We couldn't find one we wanted in the price range we wanted and when we spied it ... all they had left was the demo model. Jon said "We're taking it." And, he carried this tree through the store, through the crowds, and somehow got it into the car ... we were dying laughing. It was a good last Christmas together. In fact he had been looking up off season pricing on artificial trees when he disappeared. We got that tree home and realized how small it looked in our room that had an extremely high ceiling and he wanted to get a larger one for the following Christmas. No one will ever convince me his disappearance was planned, I know better.

That tree has only been put up one time since Jon disappeared. When I finally moved back home to Kansas City I put the tree up with the help of my grandson. It was so hard. Jon had packed that tree so well and I had to untie all his knots and undo what he had packed away so carefully. Crazy things like that can make you cry.

What once gave me such pleasure is no more. I still go to the Plaza just on Thanksgiving night and I always try and make it down to "our spot" on the bridge that we occupied for so many years together as a family. I guess I keep thinking that if I ever see my husband again it will be on that bridge.

Now with the divorce and absolutely no answers (other than he's alive) this is a holiday season I just want to be over. I will cherish it with my grandsons and embrace the religious celebrations but all other aspects of the Christmas season I dread.
I love you, Maureen ... I wish it was possible to walk this incredibly painful journey with you ... "just praying" seems so futile sometimes, even though I know without a doubt that God is bigger than us all ... so I'll keep on ... xoxoxo
Thanks Sara....this is a good discussion. Hope many feel comfortable enough to also share their real feelings about the season.
Thank you for the invitation to this group. It is true about the Holidays. When someone is hurting because of loosing a love one it is very hard to think about the Holidays. As I read along this information, I can help it but think of those who I lost recently. Espepcially the lost of one of my nieces, who die to young for me to understand "WHY". Yesterday November 21st, would have been her birthday, and I was afraid to call my sister because of all the pain,grief and sadness her departure has caused to all my family members. I know that God had a plan and I had accepted His plan because I have Faith. I know that I will be sad for this Holidays as well as my family, however I still believe in the Miracle of the Holy Night. Sometimes it does take a long time to heal, but I know that some day I will with the love of my family understand the WHY. God does give us the tools to reconcile with our losses. So for all those mourning a love ones, you are not alone. Talking to someone does alliviate the pain. Thank you for the kindness you all have shown here.
Eveyone handles loss and grief differently; for us as the holidays approach a certain negativity is hard to avoid; But we have learned a great appreciation for those we care about who are still with us. We have learned not to take them for granted, we know neither the day nor hour when some family member or dear friend may pass. so we must turn our grief into a teaching tool and teach each other to have faith that we will be reunited with our lost ones and for now we must treasure those dear people who are here, now.

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